Sep 302016

Movements & Emerging Technologies Webinars present:

Are GMOs 2.0 in your food and cosmetics?

An introduction to synthetic biology for shoppers

Companies are sneaking new GMO foods into our food and cosmetics: gene-silenced apples, a GMO potato, synthetic biology flavors and fragrances are on their way to market, or already there — and they may even be marketed as “natural.” This webinar will tell you everything you need to know to avoid the new wave of GMOs and find truly natural and sustainable options.

Host: Stacy Malkan co-director of US Right to Know


Dana Perls Senior Food and Technology Campaigner, Friends of the Earth 
Michael Hansen
, Ph.D. Senior Scientist, Consumers Union 
Ravin Donald, Ph.D.
Vice President of Technical Services at Frontier Co-op 
Lisa Stokke
Co-Founder and Associate Director of Food Democracy Now!

This webinar took place on Wednesday 5th October 2016

The Movements and Emerging Technologies (M&ET) webinar series is supported by a grant from the European Union Framework 7 Programme’s SYNENERGENE Project.


Sep 302016

HCC Public Information Office via Flickr CC

by Ian Sample (the Guardian)

Nuffield Council on Bioethics report finds materials to perform basic experiments are now available to ‘garage scientists’

The simplicity and low cost of tools to edit the genetic code means “garage scientists” – or amateurs with some skill – can now perform their own experiments, posing a potential risk from the release of GM bugs, a new report suggests.

In a report published on Friday, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said that the rise in precision “gene editing” tools had revolutionised biomedical research over the past ten years and could potentially have a dramatic impact on human society.

But it found that the materials needed to perform basic experiments were available to enthusiasts outside academia and established labs. This year, one firm began to sell a kit for £100 to DIY biology interest groups that allowed them to render the common soil microbe, E coli, resistant to the antibiotic streptomycin.

The report goes on to say that genetic technology has become so powerful that nations need to decide whether or not doctors should ever be allowed to modify the human species.

While the creation of GM humans is not on the horizon yet, the risks and benefits of modifying a person’s genome – and having those changes pass on to future generations – are so complex that they demand urgent ethical scrutiny, the review found.

“This could transform our range of expectations and ambitions about how humans control our world,” said Andrew Greenfield, a geneticist and chair of the Nuffield Council’s working group. “Although most uses so far have been in research, the potential applications seem to be almost unlimited.”

Genome editing has become a common tool in laboratories around the world. The most common technique, called Crispr-cas9, works like a pair of molecular scissors. It is essentially a pair of enzymes that can be designed to find and remove a specific strand of DNA inside a cell, and then replace it with a new piece of genetic material. The procedure can be used to rewrite single letters of genetic code and even whole genes.

The report found that gene editing could potentially block the inheritance of cystic fibrosis and more than 4000 other known conditions caused by single faulty genes. But the technique may also drive profound changes in farming, the report found, where the possibilities range from swine fever-resistant pigs, chickens that only give birth to females, and hornless cows that could be housed in smaller spaces. Because Crispr-cas9 does not leave any traces, meat and other products from GM animals could find its way to market without being labelled. Meanwhile, the simplicity and low cost of Crispr-cas9 means amateurs in the home can now perform their own experiments.

Altering the genetic makeup of a human embryo and transplanting it into a woman is banned in Britain, but there are ethical arguments in favour of the procedure, such as preventing children from inheriting genes that cause fatal diseases. But if the procedure were allowed, some fear it could open the door to what the report calls “consumer” or “liberal eugenics” where children are modified to suit their parents’ preferences.

“We’ve identified human reproductive applications as an area that demands urgent ethical scrutiny and we must consider carefully how to respond to this possibility now well before it becomes a practical choice,” said Karen Yeung, a law professor at King’s College London, and co-author of the report.

Scientists have already begun to edit the genes of human embryos, but only for basic research. Earlier this year, researchers in China tried to add HIV resistance to human IVF embryos which had been donated to science when tests found them to be unviable. The experiments did not achieve their goal, but highlighted how difficult the procedure was likely to be in humans.

In 2015 another Chinese team became the first in the world to edit human embryos, when they tried, and failed, to modify a gene that causes beta-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder. Again, the work was performed on abnormal IVF embryos donated to research.

From a purely medical standpoint, there are good reasons to correct faulty genes at the embryo stage, because the defective DNA is then erased from every cell in the body. The risk comes when the modification has unintended consequences. This could harm not only the child, but their future children, because the altered gene would be in their sperm or eggs.

In light of the report, the Nuffield Council has set up two new reviews to look specifically at the ethics of gene editing in human reproduction and livestock. One major question will be where to draw the line on what is acceptable if gene editing is approved in humans, in principle. It may be morally acceptable to correct a faulty gene that will definitely pass on a fatal disease to a child. But what about a gene that has a chance of raising by 10% a person’s risk of heart disease or Alzheimer’s? The report notes that in the future, it may be possible to enhance people with genes from other organisms, for example to improve night vision and sense of smell.

“It is only right that we acknowledge where this new science may lead and explore the possible paths ahead to ensure the one on which we set out today is the right one,” said Yeung.

Sep 292016

biochem_gloves_vb_cc_by_rdecomby Stacy Malkan (HuffPost)

Silenced genes, edited genes, algae engineered to produce compounds that taste like food: new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) made with these experimental techniques are making their way to your dinner plate. It’s the next wave of genetic engineering, or GMOs 2.0.

Will we know if they’re in our food?

The new GMO labeling law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama has been widely panned by consumer groups because it allows companies to use QR codes or 800 numbers in place of plain English on labels.

But even worse news for our right to know what’s in our food: vague wording in the new law opens the door for industry pressure on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt many – possibly even most – GMOs from labeling at all.

To learn more about GMOs 2.0 and whether these foods will be labeled, I spoke with Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union.

Q: GMOs have been in our food for over 20 years but they have recently been changing. Can you describe what’s new?

MH: What’s new is they are using different methods to cut and change specific gene sequences. There are two basic types: gene silencing techniques such as RNA interference (RNAi) that can turn particular genes off; and gene editing techniques such as CRISPR, TALEN or zinc fingered nucleuses used to cut DNA in order to make small genetic changes or insert genetic material.

These methods are more precise than the old methods, but there can still be off-target and unintended effects. When you alter the genetics of living things they don’t always behave as you expect. This is why it’s crucial to thoroughly study health and environmental impacts, but these studies aren’t required.

Also, just because the techniques are different doesn’t mean the traits will be. The old method of genetic engineering was used mostly to make plants resist herbicides, and increase sales of herbicides. The new gene editing techniques will probably be used in much the same way, but there are some new twists.

Q: What GMO 2.0 foods are on the market now?

MH: Non-browning GMO apples are growing in fields now and may be in stores next year. A GMO potato is in stores now but we don’t know where. The potato was engineered with RNAi to not turn brown on exposure to air and to produce lower levels of acrylamide (a carcinogen) when fried or baked.

Canola genetically engineered with CRISPR to tolerate herbicides may already be in canola oils. Synthetic biology vanilla flavor and stevia are also in products – these were produced using genetically engineered yeast – and they may even be marketed as “natural.”

Companies are not telling consumers these products are GMO; instead they are using terms like “fermentation derived” to describe ingredients made with synthetic biology. When you see that term on products, or a “non-browning” apple or potato, assume that means genetically engineered.

Q: Congress just passed a GMO labeling law, but the language is written in a way that could be interpreted to exempt many GMO foods from labeling. Can you explain the problem?

MH: The first problem is that the law says genetically engineered DNA must be present. That means the law exempts highly processed foods such as high fructose corn syrup, GMO beet sugar, purified oils and some engineered artificial flavors and spices because the identifiable engineered DNA is degraded or removed. Whole classes of soft drinks won’t be labeled even if they contain high levels of genetically engineered corn syrup. Nothing can be done about that now.

The second problem we can do something about. The law exempts foods if the genetic modification could otherwise be achieved via conventional breeding or found in nature. It all comes down to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “modification.” It could be defined in a way that includes nothing, though hopefully that won’t happen because there would be such an uproar.

Modification should be defined as specific genetic sequences that are altered. If USDA defines it that way, these new GMO 2.0 techniques should be covered. But that is going to be a huge fight and it could end up that a lot of GMO foods fall through the cracks and don’t have to be labeled.

On the plus side, USDA has decided that meat, poultry and eggs can be labeled as non-GMO if they come from animals that are not fed with genetically engineered foods, and they leave it up to an independent third-party standard. We need to make sure that standard is created in an open transparent manner and consistent with international standards.

The next step is that consumer groups need to flood the USDA with comments. USDA is accepting public comments until Oct. 23 and Consumers Union will be posting our comments soon to help inform others of the issues at stake.

Q: Is genetic engineering the future of our food?

MH: No I don’t think so. When you look at the millennial generation, there is a sea change in how people view food. Previously people asked if it was cheap. Now there is a huge interest in how food is produced and where it comes from. People are trying to get food as fresh and natural as possible. They want food grown more sustainably, more locally and in less industrialized conditions.

This is why we see so many companies announcing they are getting rid of antibiotics, artificial colors and ingredients, GMOs and other foods produced in industrialized conditions. That’s why these new GMO technologies may not have a great future; most of them are designed for industrial food systems.

There is global agreement in the World Agriculture Report that industrial agriculture and genetic engineering are not the answer for the future of food. The answer is ecologically rational farming systems.

Biotechnology by its very nature is focusing on one or a few genes or specific traits whereas truly ecological agriculture is focused on whole systems. That’s the direction consumers want and where we need to go for health and sustainability.

But ecological agriculture is not something that corporations can easily monetize, and not something they can patent and own. Companies are pushing GMOs because of the profit margin.

Q: What, in your view, is the responsible path forward for genetic engineering?

MH: Along with hundreds of other scientists and academics, I signed the statement “No scientific consensus on GMO safety,” which describes the problems with current regulatory and scientific methods. Our view is that decisions about whether to continue or expand genetically engineered crops and foods should be supported by strong scientific evidence of the long-term safety for human and animal health and the environment, which is obtained in a manner that is honest, ethical, rigorous, independent and transparent.

Q: Given the uncertain state of labeling, what can people do to avoid genetically engineered foods?

MH: Choose organic food or products certified by the Non GMO Project, which has verified tens of thousands of foods that don’t contain GMOs or synthetic biology ingredients.

Sep 222016

2016-09-20-1474391842-938121-pictureshoppersguide.pngby Jim Thomas (HuffPost)

Would you put these items on your shopping list?

Gene-silenced apples that don’t rot; synthetic vanilla made with genetically engineered yeast; canola, DNA edited to resist pesticides.

These are just a few of the new genetically engineered products already making their way to a store near you.

We call them GMOs 2.0 — and they may even be misleadingly labeled as “natural.”

How will you know if you’re eating synthetic GMO 2.0 foods or putting them on your body? For those who want to “keep it real,” we have developed a handy Shopper’s Guide to Synthetic Biology. Here are the key things to know.

The GMO market is changing fast

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have been in our food for 20 years, but the underlying technology has recently been changing. Corporations are now tinkering with nature in new and riskier ways. They can change a species by editing or deleting genes, turning genes on or off, or even creating whole new DNA sequences on a computer.

Some food and cosmetic companies are now experimenting with synthetic biology. This new field of genetic engineering produces artificial compounds that taste or smell like familiar substances, but don’t actually come from the natural source.

GMOs 2.0 already in products, or making their way to market, include:

  • Synthetic biology versions of food ingredients including vanilla flavour, saffron and stevia.
  • Synthetic biology personal care ingredients, including rose oil, patchouli fragrance and squalane moisturizer.
  • Animal replacement products such as fake cow’s milk (made from genetically engineered yeast, not cows)

Five problems with GMOs 2.0

Companies are rushing synthetic biology GMO products onto the market — without labelling them and without understanding the impact on health, the environment, farmers and communities. Be aware:

1. GMOs 2.0 are unpredictable:

So were GMOs 1.0, for that matter. “When you alter the genetics of living things they don’t always behave as you expect,” says Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at Consumers Union. Some first-generation GMOs had unexpected effects such as unwanted toxic compounds. The next generation may be even more unpredictable. Synthetic biology companies try to present biology as something that can be reliably and predictably altered, but this field is still highly experimental and genetics are poorly understood.

2. Regulations aren’t in place

Many governments require little to no testing to ensure the safety of GMOs, and systems are not in place for adequate oversight to understand the health, environmental and social impacts.

3. There is no evidence to support sustainability claims

Some companies tout GMOs 2.0 as environmentally efficient. But many current synthetic biology products depend on sugar from chemical-intensive monocultures, or other polluting feedstocks such as fracked gas. If GMO 2.0 products such as engineered algae escape into the environment they may become “living pollution.”

4. GMOs 2.0 threaten the livelihoods of farmers

GMO crops linked to patented seeds or chemicals are already displacing farmers around the world. With the new generation of GMOs, traditional plant-based ingredients farmed in sustainable ways by real farmers may be replaced by synthetic biology products produced in labs. My organization, ETC Group, has interviewed farmers around the world who are concerned about the impact of synthetic biology products. The fact is, small farmers feed most of the world. If their livelihoods are undercut by artificial synthetic biology, their families and communities will suffer — along with the fields, forests and web of life that they protect.

5. Putting corporations in charge

A key problem with genetic engineering has been that it puts corporations in charge of our food system with patents that allow them to own the seeds of life. Corporations have incentives to also use the new genetic engineering to maximize profits, not protect people and the planet.

Fake foods, fake promises

For decades, we have been falsely promised that GMOs would solve hunger and protect the environment — yet people still go hungry and instead farmland is saturated with toxic pesticides. Today we are hearing new promises that synthetic biology and GMOs 2.0 will combat climate change, decrease pressure on land or even save endangered species.

But these promises are just industry hype to encourage investment and keep away regulators. Companies touting these technologies have not shared any data to back up sustainability claims, and there are many sustainability concerns when you look at the lifecycle of the products, including the environmental problems of feedstock crops that are grown on land that could be used to feed people.

Instead of falling for false claims about fake foods, we need to build a food system that is truly keeping it real: one that supports small farmers, local communities, consumers and the environment.

Consumers want real, natural foods

A look at trends in the marketplace shows that consumers want real, natural foods and cosmetics — not synthetic biology or GMOs. They want authentic ingredients from real farmers, not corporate labs. They want to know what’s in their food with clear understandable labels not double-speak about “fermentation derived” or “cultured ingredients.” If it’s a GMO — call it a GMO.

As Fortune magazine reported last year, “Major packaged-food companies lost $4 billion in market share alone last year, as shoppers swerved to fresh and organic alternatives.”

“It’s pretty simple what people want now: simplicity … less of the ingredients they can’t actually picture in their head.”

3 ways to avoid GMOs 2.0:

1. Buy organic: Organic is best because it ensures that food and ingredients are grown in ways that are better for people and the planet. Organic farmers are not allowed to use genetically engineered crops or synthetic pesticides.

2. Look for Non-GMO Project Verified or Made Safe a‘s trustworthy certifications that ensure products are not genetically engineered or made with synthetic biology.

3. Download the new Shoppers Guide to Synthetic Biology and keep up to date with the latest synthetic biology products and ingredients here.

Sep 202016

shoppers-guide-coverAre GMOs 2.0 in your food and cosmetics? Gene-silenced apples that never look old, synthetic stevia created with genetically engineered algae — these are just some of the new generation of GMOs companies are sneaking into food and consumer products.

This new guide helps consumers avoid the new wave of GMOs and find truly natural and sustainable options.

The 12-page guide is available for free below, and printed copies can be ordered in bulk for the cost of shipping.

The Shopper’s Guide to Synthetic Biology explains:

  • Which GMO 2.0 products are in stores now, or on their way. Examples include synthetic versions of vanilla, stevia and patchouli fragrance.
  • Concerns about GMOs 2.0, including lack of testing, lack of labeling and negative impact on small farmers.
  • How to avoid GMOs 2.0: Buy organic as the best option, or choose products with the Non-GMO Verified or Made Safe certifications that do not allow synthetic biology ingredients.


Read the Synthetic Biology Shopper’s Guide press release
Take part in the Shopper’s Guide webinar – details to be announced soon!

How can I get hold of the Shopper’s Guide?

Consumers can [download id=”2781″]. You will soon also be able to order printed copies to distribute in your business, organization, or community for the cost of shipping. And you can [download id=”2773″], to get the conversation started in your community.

We also have a Syn Bio Free Guide for Companies, available here.

Sep 162016


by ETC Group

Policymakers could still block the agribiz mergers; peasants and farmers will continue the fight for seeds and rights

Wednesday’s confirmation that Monsanto and Bayer have agreed to a $66 billion merger is just the latest of four M&A announcements, but at least three more game-changing mergers are in play (and flying under the radar).  The acquisition activity is no longer just about seeds and pesticides but about global control of agricultural inputs and world food security.  Anti-competition regulators should block these mergers everywhere, and particularly in the emerging markets of the Global South, as the new mega companies will greatly expand their power and outcompete national enterprises.  Four of the world’s top 10 agrochemical purchasing countries are in the global South and account for 28% of the world market.[1] If some of these throw up barriers, shareholders will rebel against the deals regardless of decisions in Washington or Brussels.

“These deals are not just about seeds and pesticides, but also about who will control Big Data in agriculture,” says Pat Mooney of ETC Group, an International Civil Society Organization headquartered in Canada that monitors agribusiness and agricultural technologies. “The company that can dominate seed, soil and weather data and crunch new genomics information will inevitably gain control of global agricultural inputs – seeds, pesticides, fertilizers and farm machinery.”

Neth Daño, ETC’s Asia Director, continues, “Farmers and regulators should be watching out for the seventh M&A – John Deere and Company’s bid to merge its Big Data expertise with Monsanto-owned Precision Planting LLD. After the Bayer-Monsanto merger, it’s not clear whether Precision Planting will go to Deere and Co. or if Bayer will protect its future in agricultural data.” Daño, based in the Philippines, points out that “Deere started connecting its farm machinery to GPS in 2001 and since then has invested heavily in sensors that can track and adjust seed, pesticide and fertilizer inputs meter by meter. The company has 15 years of historic data as well as access to terabytes of other weather, production and market data. Quite literally, Deere and the other farm machinery companies (the top three account for half of the world market) own the box in which the other input enterprises have to dump their products. That means Deere also owns the information.”

Silvia Ribeiro, Director of ETC’s Latin American office, agrees that the latest news confirming Monsanto agreement has “created alarm throughout Latin America and raised big concerns about increased input prices, more privatization of research and huge pressure from these Giant companies to make laws and regulations in our countries that allow them to dominate markets, crush farmers’ rights and make peasant seeds illegal.”

Although the mergers will be contested at the national level around the world, Neth Daño in the Philippines and Silvia Ribeiro in Mexico see the battle moving to a number of international fora in the weeks and months ahead. Daño will be in Indonesia September 27 – 30 when governments, farmers’ organizations and civil society meet to discuss Farmers Rights as part of a legally binding treaty intended to guarantee farmers access and use of seed. “This is an international seed meeting that can’t avoid addressing these mergers,” she asserts. “The hottest topic on the agenda is a Big Data proposal for seeds being pushed by the companies.”

October 17 – 21, Pat Mooney and Silvia Ribeiro will be in Rome attending the UN’s Committee on World Food Security. “Virtually all of the world’s governments, farmer organizations and many agribusinesses companies will be in the same room for a week, with food security on the official agenda. There are going to be a lot of angry people there wanting to stop these mergers,” Ribeiro insists.

December 4–17, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity will be meeting in Mexico where agricultural biodiversity issues are on the agenda. The Convention is famously proactive on seed issues having already set a moratorium against Terminator seeds (seeds genetically modified to die at harvest time forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every growing season) and, as well, a protocol on the trans-boundary movement of transgenic seeds and another protocol that will soon enter into force related to loss and damages caused by GM contamination. When it meets in December, it will debate the risks of a suite of new plant breeding technologies described as “extreme genetic engineering” (synthetic biology) which is much favoured by all the companies now merging as a strategy to sidestep biotech regulations. “Wherever these companies go in the next few months, they are going to have a fight on their hands,” says Silvia Ribeiro.

For further information:

Pat Mooney, Executive Director, ETC Group: 1-613-240-0045 or

Neth Daño, Asia Director, ETC Group: +63 917 532 9369 or

Silvia Ribeiro, Latin America Director, ETC Group: + 52 1 5526 5333 30 or

M&As – Public and Not-So Public

The buying spree started in July 2014 when Monsanto (the world’s #1 seed company; #5 In agrochemicals[2]) launched the first of three runs at Syngenta (#1 in crop chemicals; #3 in seeds[3]).  All offers were rebuffed. Nevertheless, the gambit set all of the Big Six seed/chemical companies in motion…

1.     November 2015 –  ChemChina (who owns the world’s 7th-largest agrochemical company, ADAMA[4]) made a $42 billion bid for Syngenta.[5]  The offer (bumped up to $43 billion) was accepted in February 2016.[6] The deal has passed one of several regulatory hurdles in the USA,[7] but faces challenges in numerous other jurisdictions including, apparently, Canada, Brazil and the EU. It is expected to close by the end of 2016.[8] The merger will give ChemChina “a way to diversify beyond agrochemicals into GM seed technology.”[9]

2.     December 2015 – Dupont (#2 in seeds, #6 in pesticides[10]) and Dow (#5 in seeds, #4 in pesticides[11]) announced their $68 billion merger. It is still pending and under review by antitrust regulators,[12] and the companies optimistically claimed the deal will be done by the end of the year.

3.     May 2016 –  Bayer (#2 in crop chemicals; #7 in seeds[13]) low-balled a bid for Monsanto[14] but the companies eventually reached a deal for $66 billion on September 14 and predict closure by the end of 2017.[15]

4.    August, 2016 – Potash Corp. (#1 in synthetic fertilizers by capacity,[16] #4 by market share[17]) began negotiations with Agrium (#2 in fertilizers by market share[18]).  The deal was agreed September 12, 2016, and was valued at $30 billion. Aside from making the new entity the undisputed No. 1 in fertilizers, it also broadens the base of the enterprise to include seeds and crop chemicals.[19] The deal is expected to close in mid-2017.[20]

As the four negotiations went back and forth, the world’s other significant seed, chemical and fertilizer companies were looking on with a mixture of consternation and anticipation. Since it is highly unlikely that all four mergers can play through without divestitures, ETC predicts that at least two other M&A options are coming down the pipeline…

5.     BASF (#3 in crop chemicals and a modest player in seeds[21]) either has to get bigger or get out, and is undoubtedly calculating the possibility of snapping up any smaller seed and pesticide companies that fall by the wayside if the other mergers proceed. Its second option is to go after the second-string of German, Dutch, US and Japanese seed/pesticide companies to cobble together a larger agricultural footprint.

6.    The same second-string players may be thinking of doing the same thing—either picking up the leftovers or merging themselves. Though alarming to smaller companies, the mashing together of the giant companies also leaves them niches of opportunity.

But a 7th M&A has been playing off stage; important on its own, but also a harbinger of much bigger changes that will impact global agricultural inputs in the months and years ahead…

November 2015 –  Deere & Co. (#1 in farm machinery and nothing much in seeds or chemicals[22]). agreed to buy Monsanto’s Precision Planting LLD.[23] In August 2016, however, Deere was sued by the US Justice Department to block the deal[24] because the merger would allow Deere to “dominate the market for high-speed precision-planting systems and be able to raise prices and slow innovation at the expense of American farmers who rely on these systems”[25]:  Deere and Precision Planting LLD together would account for 86% of the precision planting market.[26]  Deere and Monsanto said they would fight the decision.[27] Bayer may have changed all of this.


[1] Brazil is the world’s largest agrochemical market at US$10 billion, China is the 3rd largest agrochemical market at US$4.5 billion, Argentina is 8th at US$1.5 billion and India is 9th at US$1 billion. Source: ETC Group, “Merge-Santo: New Threat to Food Security.” Briefing Note. March 22, 2016.

[2] 2014 data. ETC Group, “Breaking Bad: Big Ag Mega-Mergers in Play.” ETC Group Communique 115. December 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Aaron Kirchfield, Ed Hammond, Dinesh Nair, “ChemChina Is in Talks to Acquire Syngenta.” Bloomberg News, Nov 12 2015 – 5pm EST.

[6] Anonymous, “ChemChina Offers Over $43 Billion for Syngenta” Bloomberg News, February 3, 2016.

[7] Michael Shields and Greg Roumeliotis, “U.S. Clearance for ChemChina deal sends Syngenta stock soaring.” The Globe and Mail. August 22, 2016.

[8] Syngenta, “ChemChina and Syngenta receive clearance from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS),” Press Release, August 22, 2016.

[9] Lindsay Whipp and Christian Sheperd, “Takeover green light sparks anger in US.” Financial Times. September 7, 2016. (printed edition).

[10] 2014 data. Anonymous, “Top 20 Global Agrochem Firms: Growth Slowing Down,” 30 October 2015; company reporting.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jacob Bunge, “DuPont CEO Says Merger With Dow Still on Track.” The Wall Street Journal. July 26, 2016.

[13] 2014 data. Anonymous, “Top 20 Global Agrochem Firms,”

[14] Jacob Bunge and Dana Mattioli, “Bayer Proposes to Acquire Monsanto.” The Wall Street Journal. May 19, 2016.

[15] Greg Roumeliotis and Ludwig Burger, “Bayer clinches Monsanto with improved $66 billion bid” Reuters. September 15, 2016.

[16] Reuters, “Agrium and Potash Corp Are Merging to Make a Giant Fertilizing Company.” Fortune. September 12, 2016.

[17] 2014 Data. ETC Group, “Breaking Bad”

[18] 2014 Data. ETC Group, from publicly available information.

[19] Guy Chazan and James Fontanella-Khan, “Bayer urged by Monsanto shareholders to raise bid further.” Financial Times. September 6, 2016.

[20] Rod Nickel and Siddarth Cavale, “Fertilizer majors Potash and Agrium to merge, face tough scrutiny.” Reuters. September 12, 2016.

[21] 2014 data. Anonymous “Top 20 Global Agrochem Firms.”

[22] ETC Group, compiled from company reports

[23]John Deere & Company, “John Deere and The Climate Corporation Expand Options for Farmers.” Press Release. November 3, 2015.

[24] United States Department of Justice, “Justice Department Sues to Block Deere’s Acquisition of Precision Planting.” Press Release. August 31, 2016.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

Sep 092016
Martyn Fletcher via Flickr

Martyn Fletcher via Flickr

by Claire Hope Cummings (Project Syndicate)

HONOLULU – A cynical move is underway to promote a new, powerful, and troubling technology known as “gene drives” for use in conservation. This is not just your everyday genetic modification, known as “GMO”; it is a radical new technology, which creates “mutagenic chain reactions” that can reshape living systems in unimaginable ways.

Gene drives represent the next frontier of genetic engineering, synthetic biology, and gene editing. The technology overrides the standard rules of genetic inheritance, ensuring that a particular trait, delivered by humans into an organism’s DNA using advanced gene-editing technology, spreads to all subsequent generations, thereby altering the future of the entire species.

It is a biological tool with unprecedented power. Yet, instead of taking time to consider fully the relevant ethical, ecological, and social issues, many are aggressively promoting gene-drive technology for use in conservation.

One proposal aims to protect native birds on Hawaii’s Kauai Island by using gene drives to reduce the population of a species of mosquito that carries avian malaria. Another plan, championed by a conservation consortium that includes US and Australian government agencies, would eradicate invasive, bird-harming mice on particular islands by introducing altered mice that prevent them from producing female offspring. Creating the “daughterless mouse” would be the first step toward so-called Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents (GBIRd), designed to cause deliberate extinctions of “pest” species like rats, in order to save “favored” species, such as endangered birds.

The assumption underlying these proposals seems to be that humans have the knowledge, capabilities, and prudence to control nature. The idea that we can – and should – use human-driven extinction to address human-caused extinction is appalling.

I am not alone in my concern. At the ongoing International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, a group of leading conservationists and scientists issued an open letter, entitled “A Call for Conservation with a Conscience,” demanding a halt to the use of gene drives in conservation. I am one of the signatories, along with the environmental icon David Suzuki, physicist Fritjof Capra, the Indigenous Environmental Network’s Tom Goldtooth, and organic pioneer Nell Newman.

The discussions that have begun at the IUCN congress will continue at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Mexico this December, when global leaders must consider a proposed global moratorium on gene drives. Such discussions reflect demands by civil-society leaders for a more thorough consideration of the scientific, moral, and legal issues concerning the use of gene drives.

As I see it, we are simply not asking the right questions. Our technological prowess is largely viewed through the lens of engineering, and engineers tend to focus on one question: “Does it work?” But, as Angelika Hilbeck, President of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) argues, a better question would be: “What else does it do?”

When it comes to the GBIRd project, for example, one might ask whether the “daughterless mouse” could escape the specific ecosystem into which it has been introduced, just as GMO crops and farmed salmon do, and what would happen if it did. As for the mosquitos in Hawaii, one might ask how reducing their numbers would affect the endangered hoary bat species.

Ensuring that these kinds of questions are taken into account will be no easy feat. As a lawyer experienced in US government regulations, I can confidently say that the existing regulatory framework is utterly incapable of assessing and governing gene-drive technology.

Making matters worse, the media have consistently failed to educate the public about the risks raised by genetic technologies. Few people understand that, as MIT science historian Lily Kay explains, genetic engineering was deliberately developed and promoted as a tool for biological and social control. Those driving that process were aiming to fulfill a perceived mandate for “science-based social intervention.”

Powerful tools like genetic modification and, especially, gene-drive technology spark the imagination of anyone with an agenda, from the military (which could use them to make game-changing bio-weapons) to well-intentioned health advocates (which could use them to help eradicate certain deadly diseases). They certainly appeal to the hero narrative that so many of my fellow environmentalists favor.

But the fact is that we have not created the intellectual infrastructure to address the fundamental challenges that gene drives – not to mention other powerful technologies – raise. And now we are supposed to suspend our critical faculties and trust the techno-elites’ promise to use gene drives responsibly in the service of seemingly positive environmental goals. No open public discussion is needed, apparently. But why should we blindly believe that everything is under control?

In my view, the focus on using gene-drive technology for conservation is a ruse to gain public acceptance and regulatory cover. Why expose something to public scrutiny and possible restraints when you can usher it in through the back door by pretending it will do some good? The risks are too obvious for gene-drive advocates to risk talking about them.

In my 20-plus years of researching and reporting on transgenic technologies, I thought I had seen the worst of the false promises and hype that they engender. But gene drives are unlike anything we have witnessed, and amount to the ultimate test of our self-control. Can we really trust science to guide us, or do we recklessly throw in our lot with technological “silver bullets” as the way forward?

Fortunately, we still have a choice. The fact that gene drives can change the basic relationship between humanity and the natural world is both a challenge and an opportunity. We can do now what we should have done a long time ago, with regard to both nuclear and transgenic technologies: start paying more attention to the dangers of human ingenuity – and more respect to the genius of nature.

Sep 092016

Watch the Livestream of Wednesday’s public meeting on Gene Drives in Hawaii, part of the series of events that took place to coincide with the ICUN conference. Hosted by Hawaii SEED.

Host: Claire Cummings, journalist and author
Speakers: Walter Ritte – Native Hawaiin activist, Hokolei Lindsey – Native Hawaiin legal scholar, Dana Perls – Friends of the Earth, and Jim Thomas – ETC Group.

Sep 012016

gene-drives-imageEvents during IUCN World Conservation Congress

September 1-10, 2016 in Oahu, Hawai’i

Gene drives are a new biotechnology development that allows humans the unprecedented capability to profoundly alter or even drive to extinction entire populations or even whole species of organisms. Are they a valued tool for conservation or are they more likely to fail, make matters worse, fall into the hands of those who seek profit-making at all cost, or be used for military applications? Join us for a critical perspective on gene drives.

Read our press release, published 1st September: Genetic “extinction” technology rejected by international group of scientists, conservationists and environmental advocates

Public events

September 5th, 8:30-10:30am,
Room 311-14
September 6th, 6:00pm, Church of the Crossroads,
1212 University Avenue
Knowledge Café session 10430: Will Synthetic Biology Deliver on Conservation Goals and the Bioeconomy? Gene Drives: Who Decides for Hawai’i? Panel discussion and supper with Hokulei Lindsey, Jim Thomas (ETC Group) and Dana Perls (Friends of the Earth).
Attend in person at the IUCN Congress. Unfortunately due to technical difficulties a livestream of this event will not be available Watch a recording of the event here.


Resources and further information

reckless-drivingReckless Driving: Gene Drives and the End of Nature: New briefing on gene drives, released by the Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives
gene-drives-letterA Call For Conservation with Conscience: No Place For Gene Drives in Conservation. A letter initiated by the Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives, signed by Dr. David Suzuki, Dr. Fritjof Capra, Dr. Angelika Hilbeck, Indian environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva, organic pioneer and biologist Nell Newman, and many more. Email to add your name to the growing list of individuals and organizations.
mosquitoThe National Academies’ Gene Drive study has ignored important and obvious issues: Article in the Guardian by Jim Thomas, Programme Director, ETC Group
Vandana-Shiva_b_1Biodiversity, GMOs, Gene Drives and the Militarised Mind: by Dr Vandana Shiva
What are gene drives? A Risk Bites guide

Contact the Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives

The Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives includes Biofuelwatch, Econexus, ETC Group, Friends of the Earth US, Hawai’i SEED, Navdanya and independent author and lawyer Claire Hope Cummings, M.A., J.D. Write to us at

Aug 292016

reckless-drivingThis is a new briefing from the Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives which includes Biofuelwatch, Econexus, ETC Group, Friends of the Earth US, Hawai’i SEED and Navdanya. It can be downloaded as a pdf here (en español).

Imagine that by releasing a single fly into the wild you could genetically alter all the flies on the planet—causing them all to turn yellow, carry a toxin, or go extinct. This is the terrifyingly powerful premise behind gene drives: a new and controversial genetic engineering technology that can permanently alter an entire species by releasing one bioengineered individual.

Gene drives can entirely re-engineer ecosystems, create fast spreading extinctions, and intervene in living systems at a scale far beyond anything ever imagined. When gene drives are engineered into a fast-reproducing species they could alter their populations within short timeframes, from months to a few years, and rapidly cause extinction. This radical new technology, also called a “mutagenic chain reaction,” [1] is unlike anything seen before. It combines the extreme genetic engineering of synthetic biolog y and new gene editing techniques with the idea that humans can and should use such powerful unlimited tools to control nature. Gene drives will change the fundamental relationship between humanity and the natural world forever.

The implications for the environment, food security, peace, and even social stability are significant. Dealing with this run-away technology is already being compared to the challenge of governing nuclear power. [2] Existing government regulations for the use of genetic engineering in agriculture have allowed widespread genetic contamination of the food supply and the environment.

Given the current feeble restraints on existing genetic engineering technologies, how would anyone be able to assess the risks of gene drives? Would the public be informed and have a say in how they would be used? And if an accident were to occur, given that the damage would be massive and irreversible, who would be held accountable?

The ethical, cultural and societal implications of gene drives are as enormous as the ecological consequences. Civil society groups (and even some gene drive researchers) are alarmed by this newfound ability to reshape the natural world. However, such an omnipotent power to control nature is immensely tempting to those who may not be constrained by either common decency or common sense. Gene drive technology is commanding the attention of the world’s most powerful military, agribusiness, and social change organizations. Gene drive technology also appears to be relatively simple and cheap, so it could easily fall into the hands of those, including governments, who might use it as a weapon.

gene-drivesHow does a gene drive work?

A trait is a genetically determined characteristic of an organism (e.g. eye color). In normal sexual reproduction, a trait generally has only a 50% chance of being expressed. With a gene drive, however, that trait is “driven” into the organism’s reproductive cycle so that every single offspring always carries and expresses the specified trait.

Gene drives force an artificially engineered trait to spread through the natural population until it becomes ubiquitous or crashes that population. The first working gene drives were demonstrated at the end of 2014 using a new gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-CAS9. They work by setting up a genetic enforcement mechanism which copies itself from parent to child, cascading from one generation to the next by sexual reproduction.

Gene drives only work in sexually reproducing species. The natural process of inheritance through sexual reproduction is the cornerstone of biological diversity within a species. But gene drives force a species towards uniformity or extinction—a perfectly anti-ecological outcome and a violation of the fundamentals of evolution. For example, when a gene drive commands an organism to glow green, the “mutagenic chain reaction” that follows ensures that all future progeny of that organism, and all its descendants, also glow green. This violates the normal rules of species evolution, which usually limits the passing on of a new trait to only some offspring and limits its survival to those that have a selective advantage.

The implications for natural populations are striking. Figure 1a. shows the normal pattern of inheritance across the generations. Following the established rules of genetics, we can expect roughly 50% of an organism’s offspring to carry a specific gene. Once that altered organism is introduced into a population, the number of affected organisms can dilute through the generations. But with a gene drive (see Figure 1b.) there is 100% inheritance of the new trait enforced among all descendants. Instead of being diluted, the new trait takes over.

If someone wanted to ‘crash’ a species and cause its extinction, they would simply engineer a gene drive that makes all the offspring into males, for instance. This approach is being taken with the so-called ‘daughterless’ mouse gene drive. Any mouse that the daughterless mouse mates with will only give birth to males. In turn, all their progeny will only produce males and they will spread the ‘daughterless’ trait until they overwhelm that mouse species and crash the population. Theoretically, this “male-only” mechanism could be used with any sexually reproducing organism.

Examples of various gene drives

Global drives: a “standard” gene drive that continues to spread, potentially until it takes over the entire species (or causes the entire species to go extinct).
Reversal Drive: a speculative proposal to ‘undo’ the effects of a gene drive by sending a second drive after the first. A recent report from the US National Academy of Sciences was skeptical that this idea would reliably work. [3]
Split drive: a technique where half a gene drive is engineered into an organism’s DNA, and half into a piece of associated virus DNA, so that the organism won’t pass on the full instructions for a new gene drive. [4] This is intended for lab safety but is impractical as a technology in the wild.
Daisy drive: a proposed gene drive that theoretically stops working after a certain number of generations. This is supposed to create ‘local’ gene drives that won’t spread uncontrollably. [5] The inventor, Kevin Esvelt, acknowledges that a daisy drive could mutate into a global drive accidentally.

How can gene drives be used?

1. Industrial Agriculture
Gene drive developers acknowledge that agribusiness is interested in this technology for many uses. These include eradicating weeds (a “sensitizing gene drive” could be released into wild weed species to make it more susceptible to a proprietary herbicide such as roundup), or eliminating pests. For example, gene drive research on fruit flies—specifically on species like Drosophila Suzukii, which attack soft fruit harvests—is intended to eradicate it globally and save on the costs of both pesticides and lost crop damages. [6] Other pests that might be driven to extinction to protect industrial agriculture include mice, moths and locusts. Gene drives may also be used to speed up the introduction of a genetically modified trait into seed harvests.

2. Military
Gene drives are a classic ‘dual use’ technology, meaning that the technology for gene drives developed for one use could also be used as a weapon or biological agent. For example, work is already underway to equip parasitic worms with gene drives in order to eradicate them [7]–the same technology could be used to make them spread disease or toxins. Gene-drive yeasts have been created in the lab and these could be engineered to be harmful to humans. Releasing an engineered gene drive into agricultural fields could attack a country’s food production. And gene drive mosquitos and other insects could be engineered to spread lethal toxins in their bite. [8]

3. Attacking Disease
Much of the hype around pesticides promised that they would safely eradicate pests, but in fact they are, as Rachel Carson called them, “biocides” that kill indiscriminately. While the promised benefits of gene drives are that they will target organisms that carry disease, there is no firm scientific basis for the claim that their impact will not spread beyond the intended target. The following are currently being developed as gene drive organisms under the guise of eradicating disease:
Mosquitos: Several teams are working on gene drives that would eradicate mosquitos or re-engineer them so they are unable to carry malaria. Theoretically the mosquitos that carry Zika and Dengue could also be attacked with gene drive systems.
Parasitic worms: At least one team is working on gene drives to attack the worms that cause schistosomiasis and others propose gene drives for whipworm and threadworm. [9]

4. Artificially Enhancing Conservation
A small group of conservationists argue that tools that cause deliberate extinction could be harnessed for good. A consortium of 5 partners (including two government agencies) led by the conservation group Island Conservation is developing gene drive-equipped mice that will be released on islands ostensibly to kill the mice that harm birds.

They call this the GBIRd project (Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents) and intend to release these gene drives by 2020. [10] Additionally, there is a highly promoted proposal to develop gene drive mosquitos for release in Hawaii where one species of mosquito carries a form of avian malaria that affects native birds, [11] despite the fact that at least one targeted bird species has developed a natural resistance to avian malaria and there are still disease free areas. [12] This project is being promoted by The Long Now Foundation’s Revive and Restore project. [13]

What are the environmental dangers of gene drives?

Greater threat of unintended consequences
Gene drives carry the same biosafety risks that other genetically engineered organisms carry and more. We know the track record of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) acting in unexpected ways and causing a variety of environmental harms, while not delivering on their promised benefits. Gene drives are designed not only to spread rapidly but also to do it with exponential efficiency. There is nothing in the natural world to compare them to and that limits our capacity to predict their behavior.

Severing a strand in the ecological web
Gene drives are designed to create large-scale changes in populations and intentionally impact entire ecosystems. We know so little about the web of life as it is, are we really ready to take such radical steps to alter the course of evolution? It’s impossible to predict the ecological consequences of such a rapid, massive, unprecedented disruption. Removing a pest may seem attractive, but even pests have their place in the food chain. Additionally, eradicating one species might unpredictably open up space for the expansion of another species which may carry diseases, affect pollination or otherwise threaten biodiversity.

Could gene drives jump species?
Promoters of gene drives present them as precise mechanisms, just as GMO promoters did. But living systems and sexual reproduction processes are messy and unpredictable. We now know there is occasional horizontal gene transfer (movement of genes between different species) and that some genes do cross over into related species.

Applying gene drives to agriculture will intensify existing concerns about the use of genetic engineering and monocultures in industrial agriculture. Gene drive strategies may strengthen the market monopoly of agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and Syngenta, especially if wild weed populations are altered to respond to their proprietary chemicals or wide patent claims are applied. The decision to eradicate wild weed populations may also harm culturally significant crops and indigenous species. For example, proposals to use gene drives against pigweed in North America (Palmer Amaranth) could also eradicate species of amaranth used for food and cultural purposes in Central America. [14]

Dangers to society
The ethical, cultural and societal implications of gene drives are especially complex and challenging. Civil society groups, and even some gene drive researchers, are raising the alarm about the power of this technology. Such a powerful tool may be too tempting to military funding agencies and hi-tech agribusiness who see advantages to exploring this Pandora’s box. This raises the basic question: who will this technology benefit and who decides how it will be used? The potential threat of weaponized gene drives can’t be overstated. While a harmful gene drive could theoretically be engineered into a fast-spreading parasite to ‘wipe out’ a population or used to crash a food harvest, the bigger threat may come from the changing geopolitics and security requirements that the existence of gene drives may unleash.

The need to police gene drives as a potential bioweapon may expand and deepen military control and collusion in biotechnology developments. Proposals to unleash gene drives as a ‘silver bullet’ for health and conservation challenges are highly risky and speculative. But these “technofixes” continue to be over-sold to the public through deceptive media campaigns, corruption of regulatory agencies, and by inflaming the public’s fears and anxieties about disease, climate change, and species extinction. “Silver bullet” technologies distract from, rather than contribute to, the work that needs to be done to root out the systemic causes of these problems – such as providing sanitation, defending human rights, addressing poverty and upholding community land rights and stewardship over nature.

We are walking forwards blind. We are opening boxes without thinking about consequences. We are going to fall off the tightrope and lose the trust of public. – Gene drive developer Kevin Esvelt, MIT, on the current rising interest in gene drive applications. [15]

What should be done?

The Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives prepared this briefing. [17] We believe that no case can be made for proceeding with gene drive experiments or developments at this time. Moreover, in our view, recent proposals to move ahead with real world gene drive trials (e.g. the GBIRd project led by Island Conservation and the gene drive mosquito in Hawaii) are reckless and irresponsible and do not reflect the essential values of the conservation movement. Such projects should not be funded or promoted by non-profit groups or philanthropic organizations whose social contract and tax-exempt status is founded on the principle that they are doing a public service.

The project of deliberately exterminating species is a crime against nature and humanity… Developing tools of extermination in the garb of saving the world is a crime. A crime that must not be allowed to continue any further. – Dr. Vandana Shiva, India [16]

We recommend:
• An immediate and international halt to gene drive releases and experimentation.
• All existing patents on this technology should be either extinguished as against the public interest or handed to an international agency charged with preventing licensing or use of the technology.
• Scientists, ethicists, environmental groups, civil society groups, lawyers and even artists and poets must speak out clearly against gene drives in a concerted and public way, calling for the withdrawal of support for the funding and continued promotion of gene drive technology.


[1] Gantz VM, Bier E. The mutagenic chain reaction: a method for converting heterozygous to homozygous mutations.Science (New York, NY). 2015;348(6233):442-444. doi:10.1126/science.aaa5945.

[2] Jim Thomas, “The National Academies’ Gene Drive study has ignored important and obvious issues” The Guardian 9th June 2016.

[3] National Academies of Sciences, E ngineering, and Medicine. Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2016. doi:10.17226/23405.

[4] Safeguarding CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Drives in yeast. James E DiCarlo, Alejandro Chavez, Sven L Dietz, Kevin M Esvelt & George M Church Nature Biotechnology 33, 1250–1255 (2015) doi:10.1038/nbt.3412

[5] Kevin Esvelt, “‘Daisy drives’ will let communities alter wild organisms in local ecosystems.”

[6] Li F. and Scott M. J. (2016). CRISPR/Cas9-mediated mutagenesis of the white and Sex lethal loci in the invasive pest, Drosophila suzukii. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 469 (4): 911-916. doi: 10.1016/j.bbrc.2015.12.081. web

[7] George Washington University News release” MaxMind gives $100,000 to GW to create Gene Drive to eliminate schistosomiasis” Feb 1st 2016-

[8] Science. 2014 Aug 29;345(6200):1010. doi: 10.1126/science.345.6200.1010-b. Gene Drives raise dual-use concerns.

[9] George Washington University News release “MaxMind gives $100,000 to GW to create Gene Drive to eliminate schistosomiasis” Feb 1st 2016.

[10] GBIRd project (Genetic Biocontrol of Invasive Rodents) led by Island Conservation International – details at

[11] Antonio Regalado, “The Plan to Rescue Hawaii’s Birds with Genetic Engineering” Technology Review, May 11th 2016.

[12] Samuel, M. D., B. L. Woodworth, C. T. Atkinson, P. J. Hart, and D. A. LaPointe. 2015. Avian malaria in Hawaiian forest birds: infection and population impacts across species and elevations. Ecosphere 6(6):104.


[14] Vandana Shiva, “Biodiversity, GMOs, Gene Drives and the Militarized Mind” Common Dreams. July 10th 2016.

[15] Kristen V. Brown, “This scientist is trying to stop a lab-created global disaster” 27th June 2016.

[16] Vandana Shiva, “Biodiversity, GMOs, Gene Drives and the Militarized Mind” Common Dreams. July 10th 2016.

[17] The Civil Society Working Group on Gene Drives includes Biofuelwatch, Econexus, ETC Group, Friends of the Earth US, Hawai’i SEED, Navdanya and independent author and lawyer Claire Hope Cummings, M.A., J.D.